Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Sun, sea, sand but no sangria - Spring sojourn to Spain

The basics

San Juan de los Terreros, a small town in Almería (Andalucia), not far from the border with Murcia. A Facebook friend (one of those FB friends I've never actually met) let slip that he owns an apartment in San Juan and that was it. My yearning for some sunshine after the long, grey, wet winter had its solution. A week in May was available and so was Sid. Within a couple of days of our conversation, the apartment was booked and so were the flights and car hire. 

Finally, departure day came around and an uneventful flight from Gatwick to Murcia delivered us to warm, lovely southern Spain. The hour's drive from the airport to the town was fast and unbelievably quiet. Ian had told me the roads would be quiet but I didn't expect us to have kilometre upon kilometre of toll motorway to ourselves.

We met up with Ava, who handles meet and greet on Ian's behalf, she took us to the apartment and off she went. A bit of unpacking and it was time for a trip to the supermarket and a little look round. 

The accommodation

Milenio 1 is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, ground floor apartment in a block of nine apartments. It's clean, airy, bright and nicely decorated, has WiFi, a fully equipped kitchen (including a washing machine) and a spacious patio. There's a communal swimming pool (not heated) surrounded by a small area of interestingly springy grass! With so many beaches to choose from every day, I only used the pool twice but it's a good facility to have.

The location

San Juan de los Terreros is very much a holiday development without being a huge area of high-rises and hotels. There are small, narrow original streets closer to the beach but the new development starts about half a mile back from the beach. The rows of houses reminded me of Portmeirion, with their pastel colours. The town is surrounded by mountains, behind which the sun sets quite spectacularly. And they do like a roundabout!

The town itself is small, easy to navigate and, in May, like a ghost town! There is a relatively new wide, palm-lined boulevard which runs from the central fountain, out along the back of the beach for a couple of kilometres, which then turns inland for another couple. To the back of the boulevard are several chiringuitas - cafe/bar structures, great for a drink or a snack when it gets too hot on the beach. 

The beaches

There are plenty of beaches within walking/driving distance of San Juan. The town itself has a huge long stretch of beach starting at the centre of town and running along in front of the boulevard. On the first day, we plonked ourselves down on Playa Mar Serena, the longest and widest stretch in town. It was clear that it was very early in the season - in fact, it turned out it is considered to be pre-season. It looks like no-one is employed to clean the beaches before July and even without many visitors, the detritus in some stretches is quite obvious.

Our favourite haunts, though, were Cuatro Calas (Four Coves), about a five-minute drive outside town. The beaches are La Carolina, Los Cocedores, La Higuérica and Calarreona. Ian had recommended them but didn't say which one specifically was his favourite. It was good to learn that ours (Los Cocedores) was also his. Each cove is sheltered with gently sloping sand into shallow, blue, warm water. (Well, I think Sid might argue with the "warm" description!) And to add to the excitement, there are loads of fish in the shallows so as you walk into the sea, you're surrounded on all sides by them. At the weekend, the beaches got much busier with the temporary visitors but during the week, we had pretty much any one of them to ourselves. With the exception of Los Cocedores, there are no facilities at all, so you have to make sure you take everything you need with you - plenty of water, sunscreen etc. 

We also spent a day in the Cabo de Gata National Park, which has some of the most well-known "best beaches" in the south of Spain. Now call me picky, but I probably preferred the ones local to town. Our first port of call was Los Genoveses, a rough drive down a dirt road. The beach stretches round a long arc of slightly crunchy sand and when we arrived, there was no-one else there. I went for a dip and we settled ourselves on our towels. And then the tornado arrived! That might be a bit of an exaggeration but it certainly was windy. We stuck it out for about 20 minutes, being whipped by flying sand, and with it finding its way into our noses and mouths before admitting defeat and fleeing to the car. We headed to Playa Playazo next where we found ourselves a little alcove created by rocks and settled down for a very nice few hours in the sun. 

We stopped off one day at the small town of Las Negras which has a small but sweet beach, dotted with fishing boats and a wonderfully old man who spent a long time rearranging some of them, to the chagrin of the group of older ladies who had set themselves and their umbrella up inches from the biggest boat. 

On our last day, we went to a small town called Bolnuevo which turned out to have a gorgeous, long, white-sanded (empty) beach and is definitely deserving of a return visit. And finally, before heading to the airport, we stopped at Santiago de la Ribera, which also had an unexpectedly nice beach. 

All in all, there is no way you could be short of gorgeous sunbathing spots in this part of Almería/Murcia.

The food and drink

The important stuff! Despite having lived in Madrid and shopped at Mercadona regularly, I still love a wander round a "foreign" supermarket. On our first evening, we stocked up on goodies (OK, mostly alcohol!), but we did eat somewhere other than the apartment patio occasionally, although breakfast at home every day was a lovely mix of bread, cheese, yoghurt and melon! And we ate chickpea stew and tortilla (handmade by Sid) on a couple of evenings, when we felt like just eating in the apartment (and watching the Eurovision Song Contest!)

Our introduction to San Juan's lunchtime offerings was at one of the chiringuitas at the back of the main beach. We ordered a media ración (half portion) of both patatas bravas and patatas ajo. When they turned up, we wondered if perhaps he hadn't heard the request for only a half portion. Both were huge! And very tasty. The questionable highlight of our meal though was being very badly chatted up by one of five Belgian golfers sitting at the table behind us. I don't know who they normally encounter but throwing "My ex-wife was Australian ... And she was a bitch" into the first thirty seconds of a conversation doesn't generally make me go weak at the knees! 

The chiringuita on Playa Los Cocedores was very helpful and twice made us a huge salad but without the tuna which normally comes as standard. 

In Las Negras, we stopped for lunch at Los Barcos, a nice little place overlooking the sea. We had queso manchego (delicious, served with sweet, salted almonds), and they served up probably the best plate of grilled vegetables I have ever tasted. The combination of courgette, aubergine, pepper, onion and tomato just melted in the mouth. Needless to say, the use of copious amounts of olive oil and a ton of salt in the cooking process just served to make them even tastier. We were joined by an inquisitive cat who seemed to forgive our lack of meat and fish upon being thrown small scraps of cheese. 

In Mojácar, we ate at two Italian restaurants! The first - Pizzeria de Muralla, was a lunchtime stop, delivering a delicious, huge veggie feast pizza for 2. On our final night, we ate at Ristorante Pulcinella, right up on their top terrace, overlooking the huge plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. The restaurant has won awards apparently, and you can see why. The food was delicious, the service impeccable and the location is stunning. We shared a gigantic pizza bread, and mozzarella and tomato for starter, followed by veggie lasagna for Sid and cream cheese and spinach riglione for m. 

We tested out almost every eatery in San Juan de Los Terreros during our stay, although we didn't eat at La Venta, just had post-dinner drinks there (huge and cheap!) Lunch on our final day was at El Mesón and we just might have over-ordered. We had pimientos picantes (which weren't spicy), tortilla española, another plate of grilled vegetables (the second best I've had) and patatas a lo pobre (soft slices of potato, with peppers, onion and oil). 

We shared a huge veggie paella at L'Escala, which is clearly a popular hangout with the locals. It was full of chatty Spaniards, eating, drinking, watching the news on the huge screen and ignoring (in a good way) their children who were playing football outside the shop next door. The food was tasty but I felt that using tinned vegetables in a "made-to-order" paella that we had to wait 45 minutes for was cheating just a bit. 

The pièce de résistance (or el plato fuerte) came from Mi Cortijo, on the main street in San Juan. It had great Trip Advisor reviews and we'd already called in to check out the menu and had a chat with the owner. We arrived at 9pm on Saturday evening, assuming it would be quite busy but we were the only customers. Undaunted as ever, we started chatting again with the owner, Alain (French, and lived in France for the first 30 years of his life). He assured us that his wife (Belgian) could turn her hand to anything so we invented a vegetarian dish, ordered starters and Sid's main of fish and drinks, a large red wine and a gin and tonic.
The starter, cauliflower soup, turned out to be a hundred times tastier than it sounds and came with a happy message written in cream! The invented veggie dish was buffalo mozzarella in a leek bechamel sauce with roasted vegetables and it was gorgeous! We also shared a side salad and a huge bowl of homemade fries. At the end of the meal, we were treated to a new (to us) liqueur - Guajiro or Ronmiel (rum and honey). Yum. 
We were pleased to see that we weren't the only customers of the night. At 10.30, a large family of 8 turned up to eat (I still forget how late the Spanish eat), followed by a few more people coming in for drinks. 

For one of us, at least, the best food in town was to be found at Luz Azul - an artisan ice-cream place on the main street. Twice we treated ourselves to dessert there before we'd even had dinner. Their Ferrero Rocher and pistachio combo was a winner, but the cheesecake and cherry cream came a close second. 

Other things to do

Tempting though it was to spend all day every day on a beach, we had hired a car for the week and there were things to do and places to see! 
The castle overlooking the town is reached via a long, hairpin-bend road which we considered walking up but ended up driving. It's a small fort which appears to be open to the public in the summer, but there are great views over San Juan, over Águilas and out to sea, making it worth the climb (or the drive). 

Águilas itself is a cute town, with two or three beaches, plenty of shops and eating places, and a classic square (called, of course, Plaza de España). We spent our final morning in the town, just wandering round and stopping for a drink and a cake from La Pastelería Katy in the square. It feels properly Spanish, at this time of year, at least. Every Saturday morning, there's a large market just by the bypass which goes round the back of the town. Loads of fresh fruit, veg, meat, fish, snails (!) and the usual range of household goods and clothes are on offer. It was teeming with fierce-looking Spanish housewives, filling their wheelie baskets to overflowing with goodies, and vying with each other to shout louder than the stall holders! 

We spent a morning investigating the small nearby fishing villages of Villaricos and and Garrucha, both deserted but sweet. There is a definite feel to the beach towns of Almería - they seem to like the long wide boulevards and I'm sure in the summer, both the locals and the tourists can be found having a leisurely stroll in the evening sun. 

Our day in and around the Cabo de Gata National Park simply wasn't long enough. It deserves a more thorough investigation at some point. Our best find that day was the small town of Nijar, right on the edge of the National Park. It's a small town with a few streets of shops, a much older residential area with steep, winding cobbled streets to the back and its a centre of arts and crafts, particularly pottery, weaving and rug-making. We could have spent hours in the pottery shops and if our luggage allowance had permitted it, I'm sure we'd have come back with a million terracotta dishes! We spent a rather hot 45 minutes in the old part of the town following signs uphill to a water mill but it eluded us! I liked Nijar. A lot. To the extent that I looked at properties for sale there when I got home! 

Along similar lines, being a Moorish whitewashed village, is Mojácar Pueblo. Not to be confused with Mojácar Playa which is the new, purpose-built tourist resort stretching along the sea to the south of the hilltop pueblo. Another long, winding drive takes you up towards Mojácar, with the car park based just at the bottom of the village. It's very pretty, and the Moorish influences are clear. However, much of it is not as old as it first appears, given that it was gradually abandoned over several centuries, with its resurgence beginning in the 1960s. That explains why some of the buildings look as if they'd be happier in Croydon! It's where we had our first glimpse of the Indalo - an ancient symbol now considered a lucky charm and which can now be found painted, daubed and for sale all over Andalucia. I'm glad we went in May as I imagine in July and August it's very crowded and the road up to it is probably one long line of cars and coaches. It was in Mojácar that we treated ourselves to some local goodies from an artisan shop - some local olive oil, a bottle of Spanish amaretto and a bar of cinnamon chocolate. 

On our last day, we visited Las Erosiones de Bolnuevo, a very strange group of wind-eroded sand "sculptures" behind the beach and in the middle of a town! 


What? You didn't think I'd finished, did you?! Randomness that didn't fit anywhere else. 

I was very happy to discover that much of my Spanish came back to me. Very few people in the area speak English (good) and I was mostly understood and I don't think I made a complete tit of myself. 
In Andalucia, they don't pronounce the final "s" on any words. 
Property is really cheap down there at the moment. 
There are lots of cats, dogs and caged birds (sadly) in the town.
The vans for Pastelería KATY in Águilas have a picture of a man on them. Is he Katy?
The cheesy pooooofs here are almost as good as the ones in Madrid.
We didn't see a single golf course the whole time we were there, despite this being a huge golfing area.
Sid had never driven abroad before this trip. Well done, especially for driving back from Mojácar on winding roads in the dark! 

That's it. Honest. Except ...

My photos of the week can be found HERE